Are UU Confused?

READING  (responsive)               UU Principles and Sources

The principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association were formally adopted and included in the UUA bylaws in 1984.  UU women were in the forefront of the process to write the bylaws – women who were dissatisfied with the outdated and sexist language adopted when the Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961. You can also find them in the front of the hymnal, on the page before hymn #1.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

READING -             Sources

The UU sources statement also appears in the bylaws of the association, immediately following the principles.  It reads

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

READING     From “The Sources of Our Living Tradition:  A Critique,” Tom Schade

Our reading is from a blog written by my friend and colleague Tom Schade, a UU minister who served in Worcester for many years and who retired a few years ago.  Tom is a lifelong UU who continues to engage in social action and volunteer for the UUA in his retirement.  Last August he wrote:

The Six Sources portion of our bylaws needs to be examined again. I think the Sources statement are a mess, more confusing and confused than wrong.

First of all, they are ahistorical. They do not describe the actual historical process of our formation. You would think that a "sources" statement would describe an intellectual history. There is a when and a where and a who behind each of these sources, which is not explained.

Our historical origin is in Protestant Christianity.  … Unitarian Universalism sprouted from a specific branch on the Christian family tree and our sources statement should be able to explain that.

Further, one of our most important sources is the humanist movement of the 20th Century. The Sources statement bows to it in the Source Five.  But the Sources statement does not describe the revolutionary character of Humanism as a religious movement. Historically, humanism makes no sense except as a rebellion against liberal Christianity.

Our Sources do not convey that fact that our religious movement is rooted in both sides of what seemed to be a "zero-sum" theological conflict.

I believe that the Sources statement is like a family narrative that hides, or disguises, or minimizes, a family trauma. The falsity at the core of the narrative is the implication that to our ancestors at the time whether or not one believed in God was a mere difference of opinion without any lasting consequence. This is like thinking that Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, when God preferred Abel’s offering of a sheep to his of fruit, was a minor difference of opinion on agricultural policy.


How do you understand Unitarian Universalism?  I have often thought, in my critical moments, that the Seven Principles are the only thing we really teach our children about Unitarian Universalism. 

My two sons learned the Seven Principles.  Or at least they learned Principle One.  Once or twice, at odd times since they have each become adults, one or the other has confessed – “Well, I am a UU, Mom.  You know – the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” 

If they really were only able to learn one thing, that’s a good thing to have learned.  But there is a bit more.  Where do we come from?  Who are we and where are we going?  Does it matter?

As you heard, my friend and colleague Tom Schade says it does matter.  And he says the sources spelled out in the UUA bylaws should tell us more about our history – about where we sprouted from.  So….

It’s not a simple story.  Unitarianism sprouted first.  Universalism came later.  Both were born in Europe.  Unitarian ideas surfaced not long after the Martin Luther set off the Protestant Reformation with his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 – almost exactly 500 years ago.  A handful of people – in Spain, Italy, Poland and Hungary, and in Transylvania – were emboldened to question the idea of God as three persons in one.  Some challenged the notion that Jesus was other than human, that he was literally the son of God.  They called themselves Unitarians. 

Small Christian Unitarian congregations formed in a few Eastern Europe countries.  Transylvania’s king, John Sigismund, proclaimed religious freedom there, through the Edict of Torda of 1568.  Here in Northampton, we are directly connected to that history through our partner church in the village of Karacsonyfalva. Our Transylvanian friends are celebrating the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda this year and next.

Sigismund was one of the few rulers in European history to stand with Unitarians.  For the most part, they were persecuted and treated as heretics.  Those in power were Catholic, or Lutheran, or Anglican.  

During the 1700s a few English Unitarians came to the American colonies and began to spread their faith. But the origins and growth of Unitarianism in this country are more directly related to the emergence of Enlightenment thinking generally, and German biblical scholarship in particular. 

German scholars began to examine and critique the Bible as a literary and historical document, rather than as a divinely narrated text.  Scholars based mostly at Harvard, and other educated laypeople, again challenged the biblical basis of belief in the Trinity.  Some also believed that Jesus was merely human, rather than the son of God. 

Across New England, from the late 1700s through the first 30 years of the 1800s, members of the parish churches founded by the original Puritan settlers engaged in serious, often bitter debates about these issues.  It might be hard to imagine the level of their passion for theological truth.

But – if you have been here a long time, or a even just a little while, think about what the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence means to you.  What was at stake during those controversies was not academic and it wasn’t only theological.  The eternal state of souls – your own, and your neighbors’, was at stake.  The church itself was at stake. 

Those debates culminated in congregational votes.  Whoever won (Unitarian or Congregationalist, liberal or conservative) got to carry forward the history and traditions of their congregation.  They kept the building.  The kept the communion silver and the endowment.  The losers left, and often went just across the town green to build their own church and start over. 

Here in Northampton, the Unitarians conceded their loss to the majority at First Church without trying to bring matters to a vote.  The Second Congregational Society in Northampton, Unitarian, was established on February 22, 1825.  There are 16 names on the founders’ plaque – it’s in the vestibule.  Take a look at it if you haven’t read it recently.

All of those signers were Christians.  They believed they were following the religion of Jesus, rather than a religion about Jesus.  They brought with them the familiar liturgies – the same forms of worship, the same prayers, the same hymns.  They brought the same form of governance.

We don’t have any direct Universalist ancestry in this congregation, so I’m not going to say much about the Universalists today.  This isn’t because they aren’t important.  They are the other tiny liberal Protestant movement that blossomed at the end of the 18th century.  They believed in a loving God who does not condemn anyone to eternal damnation. 

The Universalist belief in a God who forgives was completely unacceptable to all the other Protestant denominations, including most Unitarians.  And then, over time, the Unitarians stopped worrying about sin and salvation, and found themselves to be mostly aligned with Universalist views.  The two very small movements joined to form the UUA in 1961.

Our Protestant, Congregational, Unitarian roots tell us something about where our form of governance and our worship traditions come from.  I was raised in a Congregational church.  I know some of you were too.  When I first came to a UU service, after decades away from organized religion, it felt familiar.  Some UUs, and some of us, still consider ourselves Christian, or culturally Christian.  And all of us can find value in the stories and teachings of that ancestral faith. 

Tom Schade’s critique of our sources statement continues.  He reminds us that 20th century humanism is one of Unitarian Universalism’s most important sources.

Some equate humanism with something you might call ethical atheism.  But I think that’s an oversimplification.  Religious humanists may be atheists, or agnostic, or believe in mystery or something else that transcends human understanding.  Dick Gilbert, the retired minister from Rochester, New York who wrote the “Building Your Own Theology” series, says,

For religious humanists …meaning is not so much discovered as created out of the raw stuff of our experience.  …The religious humanist believes that while we cannot do very much about the Ultimate, we can do something about how we respond to it, how we live our lives in the world.  We are forced back on ourselves for whatever meaning there is in existence.  (Building Your Own Theology, book 1)

As you heard, Tom Schade claims that historically, the religious humanist challenge makes no sense except as a rebellion against liberal Christianity. …Our religious movement, he says, is rooted in both sides of what seemed to be a "zero-sum" theological conflict.

Liberal Christianity challenged conservative Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Transcendentalists, and then religious humanists, challenged liberal Christianity in the 19th and 20th.

All of these challenges occasioned passionate disagreements.  It sounds like a dysfunctional family. 

In 2003, not quite fifteen years ago, then UUA President Bill Sinkford gave a highly publicized sermon calling for Unitarian Universalists to embrace a “language of reverence.”  Some were thrilled.  Others were filled with outrage.  That was not very long ago, and feelings ran high.  In some places, at some times, they still do.

Unitarian Universalism has survived, according to Tom, by adopting a stance of “agnostic pluralism.”  That stance is suggested in our third and fourth principles: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;”  and “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Agnostic pluralism admits and accepts many possible truths about ultimate reality, because no one can really know the ultimate truth.  This means all (or at least most) theological opinions are welcome.  (See T.S. blog)

Our history, here in Northampton, features 19th century theological pluralists.  They were members of the Free Congregational Society of Florence, founded in 1863.  Their founding plaque, dated May 3, 1863 is in the back of this hall, on the opposite side of the wall where the Northampton plaque hangs.  It’s also worth reading.

It begins:
Respecting in each other and in all the right of intellect and conscience to be free, and holding it to be the duty of everyone to keep his mind and heart at all times open to receive the truth and follow its guidance, we set up no theological condition of membership and neither demand nor expect uniformity of doctrinal belief; asking only unity of purpose to seek and accept the right and true, and an honest aim and effort to make these the rule of life.

In 1944 the Unitarians who worshipped in this building joined forces with the Free Congregational Society of Florence, and they established the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

Tom Schade’s critique of the sources may remind you of a UU propensity to over-think things.  Does it really matter that our sources express today’s pluralism without fully explaining our origins?  It matters, he says, because it suggests that we haven’t really dealt fully with the implications of the conflict.  Or, I suggest, of all of our conflicts – of our history of fierce debates and disagreements about religious truths.

Conflict is uncomfortable.  Why spell it out in the bylaws of our association, of all places? 

Maybe it would be better spelled out.  Maybe spelling it out would help us understand how we have, and have not, gotten beyond  it. 

I believe that our pluralism – our acceptance of a wide range of perspectives and spiritual paths – can be one of our biggest strengths.  It is one of our biggest strengths, if, and when, that acceptance can be generous, and open hearted, and curious. 

It is a strength if, and when, we take seriously another part of our heritage – the idea that we are in covenant with one another. We relate to one another, our Puritan forebears said, in the spirit of mutual cooperation and support (what they called “communion,”) and with “mutual care in taking thought for one another’s welfare,”  as well as “by way of consultation with one another.” (Cambridge Platform of 1648).

Our history is rich and complex – and our roots go deep.  We can find strength and sustenance in all that is valuable in our traditions. 

And, again, it may be worth reflecting on the conflicts.  What wounds are left?  What have we learned?  Have we learned?

It doesn’t matter, ultimately, what we say we believe about God or creation or evil.

Ultimately what matters is that we walk our talk – by bearing witness to injustice beyond our walls.  And, equally, by the way we respond to one another, especially when we disagree.

Inspiration for our work with one another and in the world  is expressed in the second source of our living tradition, the “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love” – within, and without.  

That inspiration is found in our seven principles – all of them.  The principles are a good place to start, and to end up.  I’m glad we teach them to our children.